Bye and Bye Blues (Tommy Johnson)

The first trip I made after getting  back from Africa was to the Mississippi Delta, where by a series of unlikely coincidences I ended up as part of the band for the dedication of Robert Johnson‘s grave marker. I’ve told that story in my book, Escaping the Delta, but the short version is that Washtub Robbie Phillips was invited by Skip Henderson, a New Jersey guitar dealer who had arranged the event at Mt. Zion church near Morgan City, Mississippi; then Robbie won the Massachusetts lottery and said he could pay for gas if I drove; our friend Kenny Holladay decided to drive up from New Orleans to meet us; and the local musicians who had been invited didn’t show up. So Kenny sang “Terraplane Blues” at the dedication, with Robbie and me backing him, everyone enjoyed it, and we were invited back a few months later for the dedication of a Charlie Patton marker, sharing a stage with Pop Staples and John Fogerty…

…all of which meant I spent a fair amount of time driving around the Delta, and brought along a lot of classic Delta recordings to play while driving. Mostly I just listened and didn’t try to play that music myself, but Tommy Johnson’s songs kept tempting me. It was something about the way he played and the way his voice fitted with the guitar, a lightness I didn’t hear in people like Patton. So when I got home I worked out a bunch of his arrangements, including his most popular chart, “Big Road Blues,” and this one, his reworking of Charlie Patton’s “Pony Blues,” which became a staple of my repertoire. The record label called it “Bye Bye Blues,” but that was a mistake — it’s a warning, not a farewell.

Speaking of warnings… Tommy Johnson recorded very few songs, and is not well-known beyond the hardcore pre-war blues scene, which has led to an odd mistake: in an interview with the blues scholar David Evans, Johnson’s brother Ledell said that Tommy told him a story about getting his musical skills from the Devil:

You take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ’fore midnight that night so you’ll know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself . . . A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.

Anyone familiar with blues has heard versions of that story, but almost always connected not to Tommy but to the unrelated, younger Robert Johnson — to the point that when the Coen Brothers put a version of this legend in the mouth of a character named Tommy Johnson in their movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, the New York Times critic glossed it as a reference to Robert…

…which is neither here nor there, except as one more reason to check out Tommy Johnson’s music. Devil or not, he was a fine player, beautiful singer, and one of my all-time favorite artists.